Five million Afghan children still not in school warns British head of charity


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The Independent Online

The British head of a charity working on the front line in Afghanistan has warned that despite progress 5 million children are still not in school, amid fears that the withdrawal of troops will leave them stranded.

Dr Sarah Fane, whose charity Afghan Connection has helped 40,000 children into schools, has voiced concerns over Afghanistan’s future, saying that charities fear international interest will wane when troops are withdrawn in 2014.

Dr Fane, who has worked on global campaigns to raise awareness with Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, has dedicated the last decade to providing an education to children in Afghanistan. She believes progress in the war-torn country would have been much slower without the international presence.

Describing Afghanistan under the Taliban as “a place of despair”, she founded Afghan Connection in 2002 and has since built 36 schools with support from private donors and the international community.

The charity currently focuses on schools in the safer north-eastern district of Worsaj, where local communities are keen to provide their children with an education, but are in urgent need of resources.

The country has already seen vast improvements in its educational services. Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001 only 5000 of the one million children in school were girls, but since intervention that figure has risen to 8 million, including 3 million girls.

But with 5 million - around 42% of children - still out of school, the charity head warns that with international forces preparing to pull out, Afghanistan’s most promising legacy hangs in the balance.

Recalling the country left ravaged by civil war following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Dr Fane says a “familiar scenario”, where people are left with weapons and a power vacuum - rather than a solid infrastructure - is a substantive fear for many Afghans.

Last month the Taliban’s former finance minister, Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, told the Express Tribune that civil war was inevitable if Afghans didn’t “learn a lesson from the bitter experiences of the past and reach an understanding.”

Yet, without recent precedent for peaceful post-war negotiations, mobilising future generations with education rather than weapons could be the difference between civil war and stability.

Central to progress is the country’s ministry of education, which is keen to address the dearth of female teachers who play a crucial role in girls’ education and training centres have already increased tenfold.

But with increasing numbers of girls and women in schools, safety is a concern. In April, a suspected water poisoning saw over 100 girls and teachers hospitalised in the Takhar province and in July gunmen set fire to a school in Herat.

Despite the risks, Dr Fane insists she’s providing a safe environment for her students, with local communities offering land and labour to help preserve schools. In 2010, they helped reopen 220 schools in nine months that had been closed or damaged because of insurgency.

By only delivering what communities are asking for, charities are able to build schools in relative safety because, she believes, their security  is in their relationships.

A culturally sensitive approach, where fathers and husbands begin to see the economic benefits of having educated daughters and wives, enables charities like Afghan Connection to spread their work to other areas, and Dr Fane hopes that with Worsaj as the prototype she’ll be able to build schools in neighbouring towns and villages.

“Thousands come out to thank me, then someone will come from the across the valley, see our school, and say ‘help us, we want the same.’ If the funds are there, there’s no reason why we can’t carry on.” But with only a year to go before British forces start pulling troops out, she says pressure is mounting on NGOs to capitalise on international interest and raise funds “before the world forgets about Afghanistan”.

“The demand for education is here, but it really is a question of money - and that comes from continued awareness. There are no quick fixes, but I’m optimistic. When you think that £35 will pay for a child to go to school for a year, there’s no reason why long-term we can’t get that final five million into education.”